A California proposal to label food containing genetically modified organisms was defeated 53.1% to 46.9% Tuesday. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) applauded the vote, saying in a statement: “Proposition 37 was a deeply flawed measure that would have resulted in higher food costs, frivolous lawsuits, and increased state bureaucracies.”
Proponents of the measure -– some of them at least -– put a positive spin on the defeat. “Today we celebrate a movement victory!” reads the subject line in an email from the California Right to Know Campaign. “Today, we are more than 4 million votes closer to knowing what’s in our food than when we started. This is a victory and a giant step forward.”
Proposition 37 co-chairman Dave Murphy emphasized that millions of Californians supported the measure and said their concerns remain valid. "We believe it's a dynamic moment for the food movement, and we're going forward," Murphy said in a conference call, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Marc Lifsher.
Others were not so sanguine. In a release carrying the headline “$46 Million Advertising Blitz Convinces Citizens to Vote ‘Against Own Interests,’” The Cornucopia Institute goes on to say, “Many food activists nationwide looked to the California initiative as ‘the last best hope’ for GMO labeling in this country.” Cornucopia, which advocates for sustainable and organic agriculture, points out that “such labeling is required throughout Europe, and by scores other countries worldwide.”
The defeat may seem surprising to those who looked at public opinion polls just a few weeks ago. At the end of September, 67% of likely voters in a poll published by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University said they supported the proposal to requiring labeling. Two weeks later, the Wall Street Journal’s Julie Jargon and Ian Berry wrote in a story published on Oct. 25, support had eroded to 48%, with 40% agin’ it.
(Interestingly, 87% of the roughly 2,700 voters in a Wall Street Journal poll accompanying the story ticked off “yes” to the question, “Do you support GMO (genetically modified organisms) labeling?”)
So what caused the shift in sentiment? The old-fashioned advertising blitz by the major food companies focused on the potential of the measure to raise costs for both California “family farmers” like Ted Sheely, as well as consumers.
The assertion in another ad “that the measure would ‘cost California taxpayers millions for more bureaucracy and red tape’ exaggerates estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office,” according to the Sacramento Bee’s Laurel Rosenhall, who found other “somewhat misleading” claims in the campaign.
“Monsanto, the largest supplier of genetically engineered seeds, contributed $8.1 million” to the advertising war chest, the New York Times’ Andrew Pollack reports. “Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola each contributed at least $1.7 million. The backers of Proposition 37 raised only $9.2 million, mainly from the organic and natural foods business.”
The Appetite for Profit website of public health lawyer Michele Simon lists what she views as other “corporate shenanigans” in the campaign, which she says “is my new poster child for propaganda and dirty tricks.”
According to the Los Angeles Times’ Lifsher, “the food industry said it would oppose attempts to take the fight to other states or to Washington, D.C.”
Indeed, “among the opponents' biggest concerns is that other states might adopt similar rules, which could result in a patchwork of regulations similar to the nutrition-labeling laws for restaurant menus that have frustrated the fast-food industry,” the Wall Street Journal’s Jargon and Berry wrote a couple of weeks ago.
“We think that attention is now going to shift back to Washington, with a whole lot more to discuss and a whole lot more people interested,” Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of organic yogurt company Stonyfield and chairman of Just Label Ittells the New York Times’ Pollack.
But there’s little evidence that support is gaining traction in Washington. The GMA statement cites numerous U.S. governmental agencies that “have concluded that these products are safe and are not materially different than their traditional counterparts,” as well as the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association.
“Both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been unwilling to address the issue, likely due to massive campaign contributions from the biotechnology and agribusiness lobbies,” charges a press release issued by The Cornucopia Institute.
It’s old news that money talks. But if the more optimistic advocates in the GMO labeling movement are to be believed, a lot more consumers are talking now, too.